Heidi Honegger: A WEEK IN THE DENE COMMUNITY OF LUTSEL K’E LIVING IN THEIR TRADITIONAL WAY

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Originally published by CPAWS.org on July 19, 2016

As the governments of Canada and NWT work to establish a combined national and territorial park on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, a group of residents from Wakefield, Quebec, embark on the first leg of a cultural exchange with the Lutsel K’e community. The Wakefield community is hoping to provide support to these future park stewards, as well as create an ongoing relationship between the two communities.

The following is a blog post from Heidi Honegger, one of the 15 Wakefield residents on the cultural exchange.

The twin otter flies low over the boreal forest and barrens, offering us a clear view of the terrain below. We see tracts of tall spindly spruce trees and huge swaths of lichen-covered rocks cross-hatched with animal trails. Small ponds and lakes dot the landscape; the vast expanse of Great Slave Lake lies just to our south. We see the remains of forests fires that have left behind stripped tree trunks and fresh patches of shocking pink fireweed. Mostly we see miles upon miles of unadulterated nature. Forty-five minutes after we left Yellowknife, we touch down on the dirt landing strip in the Dene community of Lutsel K’e. Our adventure begins.

Upon our arrival, we settled into the homes where we were billeted and then were quickly whisked away to join a community feast on the shore of a quick-running river. We were served fresh barbequed fish and moose followed by a warm welcome and drumming. Two days in the community bracketed a three-day stay out on the land, where we are welcomed at the hunting camp of two elders, August and Mary-Rose.

The move to the hunt camp hit a few snags, but our hosts managed them with grace. On the way to the boat launch, one of the trailers lost a wheel, crippling the expedition. The combined genius of a Wakefield farmer and a Dene hunter finally saw the wheel tied to the axel with rope, which miraculously held until the boat was successfully afloat. Once at the hunt camp, we pitched our tents, had dinner and spent some time around the fire getting to know each other. Mother Nature treated us to a beautiful double-rainbow and stunning sunset at about 11:30. When she called me out of my tent about two hours later, I was able to take photos of the equally beautiful sunrise.

The next day was filled with traditional Dene activities. While the men collected wood for the fires, the women went out in search of Labrador tea, spruce gum (used for its medicinal properties) and berries. When we stumbled upon a caribou skull in the forest, Mary-Rose hung it on a tree as we all offered tobacco and a prayer for the return of the caribou. The Dene in this area are known as the “people of the caribou” because of their centuries-old dependence on the animal. In the past year, the people of Lutsel K’e have not seen a single caribou in their regular hunting grounds.

Several large trout and whitefish were retrieved from the nets that had been set the day before, and we all watched the master filleting techniques of our hosts. We also learned how to prepare the fish for smoking using a process that was similar to what I’d seen among indigenous groups throughout Asia. After a lunch of fresh barbequed fish, we erected a tipi in the centre of our camp. The process is relatively simple and elegant but requires some strength and communal effort. Later we rode out in the boats to explore the surrounding area. The Wakefielders were thrilled to spot a couple of muskoxen, one of whom posed for our photos and bounded over the rocks in a stunning display of agility for such a huge creature. Before dinner we were all encouraged to try a taste of the moose head that had been roasting on the fire all day. I was pleasantly surprised by my bite of tongue.

The following day we visited the remains of a uranium mine (active 1930s – 40s) a short boat ride away. While the mine has apparently been cleaned, sealed and deemed non-toxic, a sign still sits on shore warning of contamination in the area. We spent the remainder of the day in the boats, exploring the area, fishing and enjoying a traditional shore lunch. The trout was cooked over an open fire and presented on a long “table” of spruce boughs laid on the rocks. Everyone dug in with gusto, seemingly oblivious to the lack of dinnerware. Once finished, we simply boated away and watched the waiting gulls swoop down to clean up our leftovers.

Our boat tours of the waterways left me impressed by the vastness of the land. To my eyes, the terrain varied very little: the land is relatively flat with the exception of some steep cliffs that line a few shorelines. I was consistently disoriented when we were out there; I couldn’t have found my way back to camp for love nor money. But the same cannot be said for our guides. They know this land and these waters like I know my back yard, steering clear of dangers hidden below the water’s surface and confidently guiding us through their homeland.

During the evenings, we were visited by people from the community who came to join us after their work days were finished. We came to know them as very social people who love to laugh. They weren’t shy to tell jokes or to tease the Wakefielders as we struggled to fillet a fish or raise a tipi. One evening as we sat by the fire, a boat approached from the village. As it neared, one of the riders shot his rifle into the air. We learned later that this is done in greeting, and the camp is expected to fire a return shot in welcome. A second after the shot was fired, the skies open up for a minute or two, dumping rain on the camp. The Wakefielders bolted for cover (from the gunshot or the rain?) while the elder Dene women laughed until they buckled over.

On the final day of our visit, we returned to the Lusel K’e village. After we got ourselves organised and cleaned up, we met at the community centre where we saw a presentation by Parks Canada about the progression of the new Thaidene Nene park. This was followed by our offering of thanks to the community and a gift exchange with everyone who had worked so hard to make our visit unforgettable. The evening was capped off by a demonstration of the traditional hand games played by the men and boys of the community. It was a raucous event of playful deception accompanied by deafening drumming.

Our chartered twin otter arrived all too early the next morning to take us back to Yellowknife. After a final group photo, we reluctantly said good-bye to our hosts and boarded the plane.

As I look back at the past few days, I reflect on how much was learned – both for them and for us. Our visit likely armed the Lutsel K’e community with valuable information for their future forays into the world of tourism. We hope to complement this learning with other activities and events when 15 members of their community will come to visit us in Wakefield this fall. They have set the hospitality bar very high – we have our work cut out for us.

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